Home Front Page NASA still stumped by Ceres’ mysterious bright spots, but they’re probably just...

NASA still stumped by Ceres’ mysterious bright spots, but they’re probably just ice

Not long after NASA’s Dawn spacecraft entered dwarf planet Ceres’ orbit, the images it returned featured an odd, unexplainable bright spot. Was it diamonds? Light from a super advanced alien civilization that somehow managed to thrive on a glorified asteroid with no atmosphere? Vanilla frosting? Scientists still aren’t sure, but new, higher-resolution images taken by Dawn on May 3 and 4 suggest that in all likelihood, the bright white spots are probably just ice.

Alien conspiracy theorists, however, remain unconvinced.

“Dawn scientists can now conclude that the intense brightness of these spots is due to the reflection of sunlight by highly reflective material on the surface, possibly ice,” said Christopher Russell, principal investigator for the Dawn mission from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Ice is the most sensible explanation, but only just. Seeing as how Ceres has no atmosphere, it would be very unusual for water to stabilize enough on the dwarf planet to form into ice. Instead, it would be expected to evaporate almost immediately. It’s possible that a super-salty brine seeping from the planet’s interior would be stable enough for long enough to form into solid ice, however.

Due to the higher-resolution images, scientists have now discovered that what looked like one large white spot is actually several. Alien conspiracy theorists, however, remain unconvinced of their icy origins. After the spots were first discovered in March, NASA launched an online poll that allowed the public to vote on what they believed the spots to be, which choices including volcano, geyser, rock, ice, salt deposit and “other.” That “other” proved to be a calamitous catch-all for NASA, as alien truthers went wild.

One commenter argued that since the bright “lights” were white rather than red or orange, volcanoes could be ruled out. Another amateur sleuth felt that due to Ceres’ size and scale, the spots simply must be large doors designed to accommodate alien spacecraft. Why aliens with that sort of technology would settle for Ceres instead of the eminently reachable (and more habitable) Earth remains to be seen.

The images came at the end of Dawn’s first 15-day orbit of the dwarf planet. On May 9, if fired up its engines to begin the descent towards its second, much closer orbit at an altitude of 2,700 miles, or three times closer than the current orbit. In that time, Dawn will map Ceres’ entire surface and geological features in an attempt to determine whether it’s active in any way.

Hopefully, we’ll eventually figure out the truth about those stubborn bright spots.